Now Spinning: Plant And See

Plant And See was a very short-lived but extremely unique late sixties group that mixed the standard psychedelic rock sound of the day with a wider palette of influences than your typical garage rockers, leading to a southern gumbo of sound featuring an earthier, swampy funk edge. The band had only very minor success, and I had actually never heard of them until stumbling across this reissue from Paradise of Bachelors for cheap at one of my local record stores. But it’s always worth taking a chance on something new!

When I got home and opened the liner notes, I was delighted to learn that MC Taylor, frontman of Hiss Golden Messenger, had been involved in the project as a folklorist, interviewing Willie Lowery, who served as the band’s lead singer, guitarist and main songwriter. While I prefer original pressings in general, I’ve had excellent experiences with other Paradise of Bachelors reissues and this was no exception. I don’t think this was ever an audiophile recording as it was originally released on a very small label, White Whale, in 1969, but the original master tapes were used for the reissue to ensure the highest sound quality. Since it does not spell out all-analog, I’m assuming the remastering was done digitally, but the vinyl is well-pressed on high-quality virgin vinyl and quiet, presenting the music well. The package include excellent liner notes by Jefferson Currie II which help frame the band historically.

Let’s get to the music. The album opens with fuzzed-out guitar over a steady drumbeat, kicking things off with a fairly straightforward psychedelic rocker, but Willie Lowery quickly distinguishes himself as a skilled guitarist during a frenzied yet understated solo reminiscent of Randy California’s work with Spirit or Arthur Lee’s playing with Love. Although from the opposite coast, those two Los Angeles favorites come to mind frequently as I listen to Plant and See, as all three bands feature a single guitarist, who delivers driving rhythms with exceptional solos seamlessly mixed in, in addition to strong vocal prowess and the ability to turn on a dime, constantly, between various, sometimes wildly different, musical styles. Plant and See are simply a power trio (plus a backing vocalist), so their ability to jump between so many styles is especially impressive. As the album spins on, country rock, raving punk garage, gospel, folk jangle and Delta blues influences join the mix, often in the same song, but in ways that feel delightfully organic.

Lowery also establishes himself as a singer with surprising depth during ‘Henrietta’, a highlight that was put out as the album’s lone, unsuccessful single. It could have been country-soul hit over a shuffling bass groove, reminiscent of those Percy Sledge favorites, with a strong vocal performance supported by carefully perfected harmonies.

Side two opens with guitar fireworks from Lowery on ‘Poor Rich Man’. Borrowing the riff from Steppenwolf’s ‘The Pusher’, Lowery unleashes layers of soloing guitars building in intensity throughout the entire song, while delivering a vocal performance eerily similar to Stephen Stills’ best soulful blues singing. ‘Seekin’ Advice’ further demonstrates the band’s versatility, as a harpsichord-dominated dirge morphs into a chugging acoustic blues jam. It’s also one of the first songs I’m aware of to directly address therapy, two years before John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. ‘Witches Brew’ is essentially a vehicle for the band to show off their funky swamp jam playing, but it’s what they do best and the song certainly doesn’t disappoint. After a couple of unremarkable verses, the next three minutes are given to Lowery to blast off on guitar, which he does brilliantly with double-tracked guitars over a funky, Meters-esque rhythm.

The Meters always credited Native American music as a significant influence on their sound, and perhaps it’s well past time that we consider Native American artists like Redbone, Jesse Ed Davis and of course, Link Wray, and the influence their highly rhythmic playing styles had on the earliest funk music. And I have to imagine that Link Wray in particular was a hero for Lowery, which makes it fascinating that Lowery’s rhythmic ability, quick, creative bursts of lead guitar, and mix of electric and acoustic styles almost foreshadows the sounds Link Wray would explore on his self-titled album and masterpiece, ‘Fire and Brimstone’, which would follow two years after this Plant And See album.

Lowery’s Native American identity also appears to influence his lyrics, quite possibly the band name, and unfortunately, but, in all likelihood, affected their lack of success as well. The group was born in the most ethnically diverse county in North Carolina, perhaps contributing to the musical melting pot they created together. And this Native American-led band featured an African American drummer, Latino bassist and female singer in a world that just wasn’t ready to support that.

One relatively common misconception in American history is over just how long and how difficult the fight to end segregation was, and quite frankly, still is to this day. At no other time in American history have all levels of the government so aggressively defied a Supreme Court order, than the initial attempts at desegregation. Brown V. Board provided an invaluable road map and legal precedent but that, on its own, doesn’t change a world so deeply set against change. People like Ruby Bridges changed the world and forced an end to segregation with their brave direct actions, almost always in the face of extreme government opposition rather than support. Sometimes those heroes crossed that line in 1960 like Ruby, sometimes, it took five or ten years to reach that point. North Carolina, of course, was home to Greensboro, where four young African American college students started a sit-in to protest segregation at Woolworth’s lunch counter, an event that is considered a turning point of the Civil Rights Movement that inspired young people across the country to become involved with direct action. But even despite those efforts, much of North Carolina remained segregated through the end of the decade, posing an obvious challenge to this up-and-coming, racially-mixed local band. A bankrupt label didn’t help, and all parties went their separate ways after the album release.

As Currie explains in the liner notes, when it was time for Lowery to join a new label, the label even wanted to call his new band Cherokee, oblivious to the fact that he actually belonged to the Lumbee tribe. With another band destroyed by record label incompetence and unsubtle racism, Lowery left popular music and shifted his focus to inspiring community work, becoming an empowering hero of sorts to his tribe and leaving Plant & See to the collectors.

If you’re devoted to original pressings, they are obtainable on Discogs for fairly reasonable prices, but this reissue is much more affordable and excellently done from the packaging to the pressing quality. The liner notes expand on the record label challenges Lowery faced and his post-pop music community impact, so this is the rare instance where I personally recommend a reissue over the original. This seems like the kind of release that could have come out on Record Store Day with a $30 price tag, so I highly recommend grabbing this while it’s still sold for half that price.

Recommended if you like: Spirit, Delaney & Bonnie, Link Wray, Love, The Byrds, The Rascals, Jim Ford and those Light in the Attic Country Funk compilations.

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